How the Marijuana Justice Act of 2019 Could Change Lives

Momentum. It is the key to just about any major change, and it is no different when it comes to the potential legalization of marijuana. The movement to remove the herb from the list of Controlled Substances is gathering pace as prominent political figures throw their weight behind it.

In the United States, we have already seen our neighbors Canada fully legalize cannabis; and as of yet, there has not been a perceptible move toward the fall of civilization up north! 2019 is fast becoming the year of the marijuana bill because members of Congress continue to introduce, and reintroduce, bills calling for the end of weed prohibition.

On February 28, 2019, Senator Cory Booker, who has thrown his hat in the ring for the 2020 Presidential Election, reintroduced The Marijuana Justice Act along with Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna. The primary goal of the bill is to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). It also aims to finally end the staggeringly prejudiced enforcement of existing marijuana laws by incentivizing states.

What is the Marijuana Justice Act All About?

The clue is in the name! It has been heralded as the most comprehensive piece of federal legislation ever introduced to end cannabis prohibition. As well as removing weed from the CSA, The Marijuana Justice Act helps ethnic minority communities move forward. If cannabis is legalized, black and Latino Americans will no longer be disproportionately targeted for weed ‘crimes.’

When Booker announced the reintroduction of the bill, Justin Strekal, the Political Director of the marijuana advocacy group, NORML, spoke out to praise the bill and condemn the existing state of affairs. He said that the Act would “address the egregious harms that this policy [of marijuana prohibition] has wrought on already marginalized communities.”

He continued by saying that marijuana prohibition has placed a major financial burden on taxpayers, leads to disrespect for the law, disproportionately targets ethnic minorities, and prevents legitimate scientific study into the potential medical properties of the plant. He called on federal lawmakers to embrace the change and amend federal law in a sensible manner that meets existing public opinion, science and “the rapidly changing cultural status of cannabis.”

As is the case with any bill introduced into Congress, the Marijuana Justice Act of 2019 is long and detailed. Aside from eliminating prohibition, the bill aims to:

    • Automatically expunge federal records of possession and use of marijuana. Too many Americans are having their lives ruined because a conviction for weed possession ends up on their permanent record.
    • Enable prisoners serving time for a marijuana-related conviction in a federal prison to petition a court for resentencing.
    • Use federal funds to incentivize states to alter weed laws if the herb is legal in their state and if they are guilty of arresting ethnic minorities for marijuana crimes in disproportionate numbers.
    • Create a new ‘community investment fund’ which will aid the communities worst hit by the failed War on Drugs. The cash will be used to fund programs such as public libraries, job training, community centers, health education programs, youth programs, re-entry services, as well as paying to expunge convictions for marijuana-related crimes.

The sponsors of the bill also had some strong words to back up their actions. Booker lamented the fact that the War on Drugs is a war on low-income individuals and minorities. He said that the Marijuana Justice Act is looking to remove cannabis from the list of controlled substances and reverse the damage caused by an unjust policy.

He continued by saying it wasn’t enough to simply legalize marijuana. Booker outlined his desire to repair the damage by investing in the communities worst hit by the dreadful War on Drugs. Ultimately, the Act is not just about legalization; it is about justice.

Lee echoed these sentiments and repeated Booker’s determination to expunge criminal convictions and invest in the communities broken by the drug war. Khanna said that communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the federal marijuana policy, which she called ‘misguided,’ for far too long.

Booker introduced a similar bill in 2017 which didn’t make it out of the Senate. The landscape seems to have changed in the short time since, and his fellow politicians may likely be more receptive this time around. Public opinion has clearly, and possibly decisively, swayed towards medical marijuana legalization at the very least.

Several Democrat Presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, quickly co-sponsored the new version of the bill.

A Broken System

After the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act was declared unconstitutional and struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 after ruling on the Leary v. United States case, the federal government acted quickly. Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) into law in 1970, and so began the modern era’s War on Drugs.

Along with drugs such as heroin and LSD, marijuana was classified as a Schedule I controlled substance with ‘high potential for abuse,’ ‘high potential for addiction,’ and ‘no accepted medical use.’ Between 1970 and 2014, 24.5 million people were arrested for marijuana-related offenses in the United States.

Ronald Reagan was notoriously anti-drugs, yet during his eight-year stint in the White House, ‘only’ 3.3 million people were arrested for weed crimes. Compare that to the 4.9 million arrests during the Clinton Administration and the 6.2 million arrests during the Bush Junior administration.

The ineptitude of the War on Drugs is clearly illustrated by the enormous number of arrests for possession of marijuana. Such arrests do nothing for ‘prevention’ and only serve to waste law enforcement’s time and money. In 2010, for example, only 103,000 of the almost 854,000 marijuana arrests were for the sale and manufacture of the banned substance. In the same year, there were more arrests for weed than for all other illegal drugs combined!

Prejudice & Recidivism

What Booker and his co-sponsors clearly illustrate is the disproportionate rate at which ethnic minorities are arrested. ACLU figures from 2010 show that whites use marijuana at a higher rate than black Americans, and have done so by several percent since 2001 at least. However, black Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested on a marijuana charge.

Prejudice becomes even more pronounced when you look at specific states. In Illinois, Minnesota, Washington D.C, and Iowa, a black individual is over seven times more likely to be arrested for having weed than a white person. Remember, a lower percentage of black people use marijuana!

Research from NORML found that marijuana arrests doubled in the 1990s but had no discernible impact on safety, use, or availability. If that isn’t the definition of failure, then it is hard to say what is.

There is also the issue of the cost of enforcing this pointless law. With well over 800,000 arrests per annum, the police must spend $3.6 billion on the enforcement of possession laws alone! Those forced to defend a marijuana arrest must spend thousands of dollars. If they are convicted, it appears on their criminal record, makes it harder to find a job, and crushes their ability to earn. Then there is the small matter of serving time in federal prison with killers and gangs!

Do we need to explain what happens to a person who comes out of jail and faces poor job prospects? It seems like we do, because hard-headed ‘zero tolerance’ types can’t see the wood for the trees. When you turn someone into a criminal and expose them to harsh treatment, don’t be shocked when they become a criminal!

Recidivism rates in the United States are unacceptably high. According to the Bureau of Justice (BJ), 68% of released prisoners are rearrested within three years! After nine years, the rate increases to 83%. The 400,000 state prisoners released in 2005 racked up nearly two million arrests in the subsequent nine years, an average of almost five arrests!

To be fair, only a small percentage of those arrested for marijuana crimes spend time in jail. However, a conviction, even a misdemeanor, can cause all sorts of economic strife; not just for the arrested party, but also their family. It isn’t unusual for someone to be hit with a weed misdemeanor charge, watch as their world falls apart, and be forced to take drastic action to keep a roof over their family’s heads.

90% of those arrested for marijuana possession have no previous convictions. According to the ACLU, 50,000 people are sentenced to prison time for a felony marijuana crime each year; usually trafficking. Using current recidivism rates, 34,000 of these ‘criminals’ will be back behind bars within three years of their release.

The Devastation of Communities

A 2002 study by Bruce Western looked at young males who were in prison between 1979 and 1998. He found that these men saw a reduction in wage growth of 30% during their lifetime. Callbacks from prospective employers were halved. An American High School graduate can expect to earn $1.53 million during their lifetime. If you have a felony record, you can cut over $300,000 off this figure!

A 2015 study by Stanford University found that parental income is the single biggest factor determining a child’s income. Therefore, when a parent loses so much due to a felony marijuana conviction, it reduces the chances of his/her child earning a decent living. Since black and Latino communities have been suffering the wrath of the Drug War for generations, is it any surprise that they are struggling for the most part?

A marijuana conviction also prevents you from owning a cannabis business! This helps explain why over 80% of marijuana business owners are white, compared to just 4% black and 5% Latino owners.

Final Thoughts on The Marijuana Justice Act

As Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said, “legalizing marijuana is about morality and social justice.” All it takes is a minor possession conviction to strip away a lifetime of opportunities for education, housing, and employment. As a huge percentage of those arrested for cannabis crimes are black and Latino, it is these communities that have been hit hardest by the failed War on Drugs.

We are perhaps fortunate to live in an era where the ‘legalize marijuana’ campaign unquestionably has the strongest momentum ever. A significant majority of the public want to end cannabis prohibition, and politicians are quickly climbing on board. As Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who introduced his own pro-marijuana bill, said, “it’s not a question of IF we’re going to get a federal law. It’s a question of WHEN.”

However, we now need to pile on the pressure to get opponents to see the error of their ways. While there are (mainly) Republican politicians who are rabidly against marijuana legalization, it is only necessary to ‘turn’ a relatively small number. Legalization won’t happen during the existing administration, but it could happen between 2021 and 2025.